Archive for the ‘Theory’ Category

Interactivity and Choice

1 December, 2007

Some of the recent bifurcation of opinions about Assassin’s Creed got me thinking.  Some reviewers are marking the game down because there isn’t much variety of gameplay.  Other internet denizens are (essentially) saying that the process of trying to streamline the game to finish it faster decreases the fun of the game.  The game reviewers, they say, are playing it with the wrong mindset.

This disagreement points out one of the subtle misconceptions about games.  Players (or at least I, as a player) want interactivity in a game, but don’t want an overabundance of options.  The player’s actions should have an effect, but what actions can be performed, what things can be affected, should be constrained.  From what I’ve seen, Assassin’s Creed is a game with a lot of interactivity, as the main character can touch and take advantage of the environment in many ways, with a plethora of context-sensitive actions.  It’s also a game with a lot of choice in regards to how to approach the missions in the game.

One reason the two camps of opinion can’t see eye to eye is because they’re not separating the game’s interactivity and the choices it provides.  The reviewers apparently chose options that effectively limited their interactivity with the game, and it became repetitive.  Others just tried to interact with the game as much as possible, and the un-fun choices became invisible and, in fact, disappear entirely.

Maybe there is a game design flaw in Assassin’s Creed, but I doubt it’s what the reviewers are claiming.  The flaw may not be that the game is repetitive per se, but that it allows the player to choose to make the game repetitive.  Certainly it seems to be that if you play the game as intended, Assassin’s Creed is great.  The question is if you’ll play it as intended or not.

Computer Input

26 October, 2007


Sometime over the past twenty years or so, there was a shift in thinking of computer users.  The two primary inputs for computers – keyboard and mouse – have switched places in people’s minds as to which is the more intuitive input.  In previous years, computer users could grasp typing just fine (even if the letter appearing on a screen was just short of magic), but explaining a mouse was difficult.  There was this issue of mentally mapping: you push forward to move the cursor on the screen upward.


Nowadays the mouse is the assumed easy input.  Casual online games will often be designed to use only mouse input.  Including any keyboard input (even if only the unmistakable arrow keys) means that fewer people will be able to ‘get’ the game easily.


I’m not entirely sure why this shift happened.  I suspect that mouse input is actually more intuitive and easier to understand.  Keyboards were only more immediately graspable because people were already familiar with typewriters.  Now that people are using computers first (rather than re-learning word processing from typewriters), we’re seeing mouses as the preferred simple input.

On Wisdom Teeth

23 September, 2007

Having one’s wisdom teeth removed is a sort of rite of passage.  It’s something that most people in our society will go through at some point.  One feature a lot of these rite (be they weddings or college graduations) is that they aren’t particularly interesting to people who haven’t gone through the process, but to those who are about to perform the rite or have performed the rite, any and all stories of the rite are engrossing.

I think there should be a website that just collects stories about people’s wisdom tooth extraction.  (There do appear to be individual stories on different blogs, but no compendium appears to exist.)

I had three of my four wisdom teeth removed a little over a year ago.  I just discovered some notes I wrote to my wife in the few hours after the operation, before I could talk with any comfort.  Alas, this text can’t quite convey the charm of the handwritten words — clearly written with both careful concentration and sloppy through the recovering fog of drugs — and penned the back of a doctor’s prescription note.

“I totally can’t feel my tongue.”

“I have teeth”

“Can you ask about the sneezing thing?”

“There’s something about how I’m supposed to sneeze.”

“I think it’s on their website.”

“So … they only took out the left ones?”

“We’ve got new prescriptions?”

“Can you ask when I should come in or the other side?”  (Yes, depite the progression toward clearer thought, I forgot the f in for.)

“When it hurts?”

“Some other time?”

This reminds me: I should make an appointment to have my last wisdom tooth removed.

Cartoon Attractiveness

6 April, 2007

Cartoon characters are generally attractive — in many cases unrealistically so.  However, I would claim that this is not just wish fulfillment or objectification.  The nature of cartoons themselves may actually contribute to their attractiveness.  Namely:

1) Symmetry is easier to draw.  As I recall from the news or from a science museum, body and facial symmetry are attractive.  I would also claim that drawing an asymmetric character and having that character not look goofy (or just plain wrong) is a lot harder than drawing a symmetric character.  So attractiveness is easier to draw.
2) Artists accentuate differences.  A reader or viewer needs to be able to tell characters apart, and so the artist needs to be able to make differences obvious.  One way to do this is by accentuating the differences between males and females — clearly delineating two groups of characters.  So, males will gain larger muscles and squarer jaws, while women will gain larger breasts and hips.  (Increasing ‘male-ness’ and ‘female-ness’ also serves to highlight the sexual or romantic tension that exists in lots of comics, and thus a character or story reason beyond just ‘big gazongas sell comics.’)
3) Clear skin.  Clear skin, free of blemishes, is a sign of health and attractiveness.  Cartoons convey a person with few lines and colors compared to reality.  Similar to a soft focus in film, or airbrushed pictures, the uniformity in color in a cartoon creates the impression of good skin.  An artist will draw a face or a leg without wrinkles or pores, making it inherently better looking.

It’ll be interesting to see if more sophisticated computer generated characters will affect these traits.

Skills can make the character

30 March, 2007

One of the things that makes a character in a story likeable is being good at something important to him or her.  Or maybe not just good: exceptional in in an unique area of expertise.  A likeable character is one that, at least in some way, the reader or audience can respect.  It also helps if the character knows what they’re good at and uses that knowledge well.

One good example is Han Solo — who transcends just being a witty bad boy by actually being an exceptional pilot.  Similarly, Marshall from Alias is the most sympathetic character partly because he (unlike the others) is great at his job and doesn’t make mistakes.  The audience of Buffy the Vampire Slayer can like Giles because he is, in fact, a great researcher.

With a real hero character, the special skill that makes them great may not be immediately obvious.  The thing that really allows Mr. Incredible to be an effective super hero isn’t his strength or indestructibility — it’s the fact that he has a perfect understanding of physics.  He can calculate in a split second exactly how to jump or how to throw something in order to do what he wants.  Captain Jack Sparrow’s capability as a pirate comes not only from his charm, but from the fact that he as really good balance.  In Pirates, Jack is able to perform most of his amazing feats thanks to the fact that he can stay upright and functioning against the odds.  The audience may not consciously realize it, but part of Jack’s appeal comes from his understanding and inventive use of his great balance.

Greeting Cards as Comics or Jokes

17 March, 2007

There’s a certain type of greeting card designed to be humorous.  Some setup on the front of the card, then turn to the inside and there’s a punchline.  This is similar to a newspaper-style comic strip in its graphic layout.  Though I would claim that the constrained setup-then-punchline structure  of a greeting card may be more similar to a spoken joke than a comic strip.  Greeting cards can have a long or short setup, but require a short punchline.  Comic strips can have multiple sub-jokes within them.

Newspaper-style comic strips also have a fundamentally different timing than a joke greeting card.  Comic strips tend to be either one panel (in which case the entire thing is designed to be a humorous snapshot) or three to four panels (which can give a sense of time passing and can include a blank panel for a pause or beat).  Again, a funny greeting card seems more like a spoken joke in format, even if the medium is more like a comic strip.

The innovation I think greeting cards can give to newspaper comics is the page turning.   Readersof newspaper-style strips may read ahead, effectively diminishing the joke.  If one has to open the card, it’s hard to accidentally read ahead.  So, what I would like to see is a three or four page card that has one panel of a comic strip on each page.  I don’t think it’s terribly practical on a large scale, but it seems like a nifty little project.

On Godzilla

8 March, 2007

American televised wrestling is a spectacle, with the aspects that are gaudy and sorta fake actually embraced by the fans.  So, here’s what I’m wondering: do Japanese people feel a similar connection to the plethora of Godzilla movies?  Does the cheesiness have some inherent charm — one that different cultures need to express and experience?  And does it always express itself as outlandish fight moves? 

D & D as Literary Framework

21 February, 2007

One of my favorite examples of unintended literary framework is the Dungeons and Dragons game system.  D & D ends up being useful for understanding or highlighting aspect of character in a work (rather than aspects of plot, theme, or anything else).  Of particular use is the the alignment system.  It’s obviously not a perfect system,  but it does serve to highlight some of the conflict and undertones in texts and media. (more…)

On Blue Hair in Anime

19 February, 2007

A friend told me an interesting anecdote recently.  One of her labmates was from a rural-ish area in Asia, where everyone more or less looks the same.  Certainly the same skin tone, hair color, eye color, and general body type.  So, when identifying the looks of other people, this labmate relied on feature Americans generally don’t, like face shape.  The ancillary effect of this is that this person couldn’t remember eye color or hair color of others well, which Americans do often use for identification.  There was a gap in communication when talking about others — which makes it difficult to pass on identifying information about people with unknown names.

An observation: when Americans encounter Japanese anime for the first time, they are often confused by the unnatural hair colors — specifically blue and pink.  Or rather, Americans aren’t confused by these colors as choices for storytelling purposes (since broadening the spectrum of hair colors can help a viewer keep track of a large cast of characters), but are confused by the fact that no one in the anime universe finds these hair colors particularly odd (these hair colors can exist even in anime otherwise devious of fantastical elements). 

So, I posit this hypothesis: the non-naturalhair colors in anime don’t seem wildly outlandish to the Japanese viewership because any hair color other than black, and maybe brown, is unusual in Japan (or wasunusual, perhaps, when a lot of the norms of anime were set).  The pink or blue hair seems particularly odd to Americans because we’re used to using hair color as a major visual identifier, and have a pretty well defined parameter space of which colors are natural or not.

Generally, I’m uncomfortable about making broad generalizations about entire nations of people.  Hopefully, I didn’t somehow insult some strong contingent of genetically blue-haired Japanese folks.

Theory of Attraction

14 February, 2007

Not a literary theory here, but one about human behavior.  This means that this theory is much more likely to be malarkey, but whatever.  Maybe it’s actually a hypothesis?

Take as a given that males find women extra attractive when the woman is doing something.  (I know this is at least true for me.)  This can be professional in nature (writing computer code, arguing a case in front of a judge, shushing people in a library) or recreational (walking a dog, playing video games, dancing).  I posit that the reason males find a woman engaged in some activity attractive is two-and-half-fold.

Fold one: a woman who is demonstrably interested in something is more interesting, having depth of character.  Despite some popular depictions, the males I know want more from their romantic interests than a pretty face or generally callipygian physique.  Women having an interest in something other than maintaining their looks shows she has some brain in her head.

Fold one-half: the interest the woman demonstrates may coincide with that of the male, giving a point of commonality.  (‘Hey, you like motorcycles?  So do I!’  or even ‘Hey, you serve me coffee?  I like coffee!’)

Fold two: a woman engaged in some activity has a greater ability to fully demonstrate her giving in to passion.  Yes, a male will find it hot for a woman to be engaged in sexual congress with him.  However, it is much hotter is it when she throws aside her previous activity to engage in said congress because the male is just that sexy.  For males, the small glimmer of hope that the attractive woman will sweep the table clean of dishes, or the desk clean of papers, and immediate jump his bones is quite captivating: it shows that she truly wants him.  And that demonstration is impossible without the woman already doing something else.

Hey, I just realized I posted this on Valentine’s Day.  I’m topical!  Neat!